Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Litmus Test For Newspapers

I was thinking about the Wall Street Journal recently, and its seeming decline in partiality and editorial quality ever since Rupert Murdoch purchased it. Then I was wondering, "How did I come to the conclusion that the Wall Street Journal has declining editorial standards, considering I don't read the Wall Street Journal."

I realized that it is because I get my news from Google News, and in Google News I see Wall Street journal headlines and literally it is just the headlines that sometimes get me steamed enough to not ever want to crack open a Wall Street Journal again.

I wanted to come up with a litmus test for partiality in news, and I came up with a simple one that is, almost certainly, reductive beyond all belief. If I ran a newspaper, I said to myself, I would make sure that its headlines contained no modifying adjectives, and could only use action verbs relating to an event. If the headline was about someone something said, it goes in the politics or opinion section. Period.

With that in mind, let's look at the front page of the New York Times.

UN Officials Say American Aide Plotted to Replace Hamid Karzai. Notice that are not only one, but two modifiers between this headline and US Replaces Hamid Karzai, the headline of an actual event. UN Officials SAY that the American Aide PLOTTED. Is this important news? Perhaps. But is it actually true that a plan that went nowhere and might not actually have existed is the top story of today?

M.T.A. Approves Big Service Cuts In Transit. Well, I'd prefer something more descriptive than "Big Service Cuts" since it basically puts the fear of God in your average NYC person. I've also always been torn about whether the New York Times should carry local news on the front page, but I guess it is still the New York times.

That Tap Water Might Be Legal but May Be Unhealthy. Is this an opinion article? I read the article, and it bundles together a bunch of anecdotal evidence (a lack of increase in regulated chemicals) with a bunch of not-very-in-depth-examined studies about the health of tap water in America. The Times appears to be choking on impartiality. Clearly they think our water is unhealthy (as it is a front page story), but then they don't want to say "Your water is unhealthy" so they throw in a bunch of tempering words, making the article easily forgettable. The net effect of this article will probably just to be to convince more people to buy bottled (tap) water.

Pakistan Reported To Be Harassing US Diplomats. Who is reporting it? US Diplomats. In fact, most of the article appears to be an interview with "One senior American diplomat." Is it true? Well, a senior American diplomat said it, right?

I was kind of hoping that one of the Times' headlines would be a statement, like US Commits 30,000 Troops to Afghanistan (which is an event) or Bomb Kills X in Helmand Province (which is an event) or House Passes Temporary Finance Measures (which is an event).

As for the WSJ:

Insurgents In Iraq Hack US Drone (which is an event -- but bonus points for their web edition carrying Readers React - 'We Can't Be This Stupid!')

US Ready to Join Climate-Aid Fund - not an event in the present tense, but a promise of an event in the future, which I think is acceptable news.

Mexican Drug Boss Killed In Raid (event)

The only one I spot which isn't an event (or which doesn't lead with Opinion:) is:

Bernanke Foes Seek to Curtail Fed.

Well, well, I didn't expect the WSJ's headlines to do better for me than the NYTimes. Ah well.